The first time I laid eyes on the Old World I was twenty. It was a wintry day in January. Junior semester abroad. Amsterdam. The Kalverstraat, the narrow old street that bends its way through the city’s historic center. The old hotel is gone now. Property values are too high.
My friend Patty and I were given one of those old-fashioned rooms on the second floor with a sky-high ceiling, a single sink on the wall, and a dark walnut wardrobe worthy of Narnia. Three tall, narrow windows looked out on the street below. It was dark. Snowflakes drifted lazily from the sky, sparkling in the light of the flickering street lamps. I thought I’d fallen through a rabbit hole and ended up in another century. In that instant, like the baby squirrel who opens her eyes to see a curiously canine mother, I imprinted forever on Europe.
Two years later I married a wonderful man who allowed himself to be talked into spending every cent he’d earned since his fifth grade paper route on a two-and-a-half month ramble through Europe. Fifteen dollars a day we spent, including hotel, food, entertainment, film for our camera, and gas for our tiny green Karmann Ghia. Then real life intruded in the form of jobs, responsibilities, and children. Extra money for travel didn’t exist. My dreams of Europe were neatly folded, covered in tissue, and stored on the closet shelf of memory.
Fast forward to March of 1992 when, armed with four cheapo airplane tickets and two young sons, the Berry family arrived in England for what I hoped would be the spring break of our lives [How to Have the Perfect* European Vacation, Part 2 *Nothing is Perfect). The reality was a long shot from the dream—and much funnier. But one surprising truth emerged: I love Europe in early spring. There are benefits to early spring travel: fewer tourists, lower prices, and no sweating. The downside is the possibility of bad weather, so we arrive prepared with warm jackets, umbrellas, and layers. For us, the pleasures of sunny summer days are met and surpassed by the subtler joys of log fires, cozy down duvets, and a glimpse of life without the ubiquitous tour buses.
Three images evoke “spring in Europe” for me : First, the bare, pollarded trees with their slender green shoots slipping through the knobby winter fists. Then, the symbols of spring–bunnies, eggs, flowers, chickens–adorning every cottage, shop window, inn, and village green. And castles…castles on hills.
I love the castles that dot the hill tops of Europe. My husband says it’s because I’m a Princess, but the real reason I love castles is because I am hopelessly in love with history. Castles allow access into the private lives of people who lived a long, long time ago—rich and powerful people, to be sure. The oldest castles in Europe were essentially stone bastions raised against invaders. Comfort was considered, but only as an afterthought. But then, as life in Europe stabilized, castles evolved into palaces, designed more to impress than defend. And palaces evolved into the stately homes of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. What follows is my short list of favorites—highly edited, utterly personal, and in no special order. You may not agree. I haven’t been to every castle in Europe yet.
1. Konopiště, near Benešov, Czech Republic
Konopiště, located in the woodlands about thirty miles southeast of Prague, is famous as the last residence of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria (heir to the Hapsburg throne) whose assassination in Sarajevo triggered World War I. First built in the 1280s as a defensive fortification with a rectangular plan and round towers, the castle was remodeled in 1724 as a French-style chateau and purchased in 1887 by the unfortunate Archduke as a country home for his wife, the Czech countess Sophie, and their three children. The castle and its interior today look just as they did on that day in 1914 when Ferdinand and Sophie were assassinated. One can imagine that the family might return at any moment, demanding to know just what you think you’re doing there. The bullet that killed the Archduke is on display in the castle museum.
2. Llanhydrock, Cornwall, England
Llanhydrock House was built in 1620 by wealthy merchant Sir Richard Robartes as a four-sided granite structure with a central courtyard. During the 18th century the east wing was demolished, leaving a U-shaped plan. In 1881 a major fire destroyed much of the interior, a tragedy which proved to be an historian’s dream come true. The house was completely refurbished, top to bottom, with the very latest in Victorian plumbing, appliances, and decoration. Shortly afterward the family fortunes declined, leaving no funds for updates or improvements. And so it remained. In 1953 the 7th Viscount Clifden, a bachelor, last of the Robartes, gave the great house and extensive gardens to the National Trust. Today Llanhydrock House is a virtual time capsule of late Victorian life.
3. Prague Castle, Prague, Czech Republic
Pražský Hrad is the largest ancient castle complex in the world. Dating from the 9th century, the castle is designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. The complex, located in the Hradcany district of Prague, consists of a variety of palaces and ecclesiastical buildings in various architectural styles, including the Gothic St. Vitus Cathedral and the Romanesque Basilica of St. George. Kept within a hidden room inside the castle proper are the Bohemian Crown Jewels. I fell in love with the castle on a bitterly cold day in March when I warmed my back against an enormous working tile stove dating from the 17th century, closed my eyes, and imagined myself a medieval scullery maid, pausing for moment’s pure comfort.
4. Holyrood House, Edinburgh, Scotland
Located at the eastern end of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, Holyrood House has served as the principal residence of the Kings and Queens of Scots since the 16th century. According to legend, David I, King of Scots, built an Augustinian abbey there in 1128, which was enlarged and domesticated in 1501 by James IV as a palace for his bride, Margaret Tudor, sister of Henry VIII. In the 17th century, the palace was reconstructed in Baroque design with four wings around a central courtyard. Edinburgh Castle is far grander, but I love Holyrood for its associations—not only with the romantic, deluded Bonnie Prince Charlie, who held court at Holyrood Palace during his ill-fated attempt to regain the Scottish throne for the Stuarts, but also with the tragic Mary, Queen of Scots, who spent most of her turbulent life in the palace. Mary’s bed still occupies her bedchamber, and Mary’s tiny oak-paneled oratory still seems to echo with the cries of David Rizzio, Mary’s Italian secretary, brutally murdered by her jealous wastrel of a husband, Lord Darnley. Nearby, in a glass case, is a lock of Mary’s hair and several examples of her fine needlework.
5. Burg Hohenzollern, south of Stuttgart, Germany
With apologies to Neuschwanstein Castle (the model for Cinderella’s castle at Disney World) and Burg Eltz (the model for Disney’s original Sleeping Beauty movie), my quintessenntial castle is Burg Hohenzollern, the ancestral seat of the Prussian royal family and the Hohenzollern princes. Built in the first decade of the 11th century, the castle was destroyed by fire in the middle of the 15th century and rebuilt, larger and grander than before. By the end of the 18th century, however, the castle lost its strategic importance and fell into disrepair. The third version, which stands today, was rebuilt for King Frederick William IV of Prussia between 1846 and 1867 in the neo-Gothic style—not as a residence but as a family memorial. Crown Prince Wilhelm, the last of the Hohenzollerns, lived in the castle with his wife, Crown Princess Cecilie, for several months following their flight from Potsdam during the closing months of World War II. If you have castle dreams, I promise you that Hohenzollern will bring them to life.
Do you have a favorite castle? I’d love to hear about it.